The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of (4459) Boy First Class Ronald Rothsay Wright, HMAS Sydney, First World War.

Accession Number AWM2019.1.1.313
Collection type Film
Object type Last Post film
Physical description 16:9
Maker Australian War Memorial
Place made Australia: Australian Capital Territory, Canberra, Campbell
Date made 9 November 2019
Access Open
Conflict First World War, 1914-1918
Copyright Item copyright: © Australian War Memorial
Creative Commons License This item is licensed under CC BY-NC
Copying Provisions Copy provided for personal non-commercial use

The Last Post Ceremony is presented in the Commemorative area of the Australian War Memorial each day. The ceremony commemorates more than 102,000 Australians who have given their lives in war and other operations and whose names are recorded on the Roll of Honour. At each ceremony the story behind one of the names on the Roll of Honour is told. Hosted by Dennis Stockman, the story for this day was on (4459) Boy First Class Ronald Rothsay Wright, HMAS Sydney, First World War.

Speech transcript

4459 Boy First Class Ronald Rothsay Wright, HMAS Sydney
Accidental: 21 December 1916

Today we remember and pay tribute to Boy First Class Ronald Rothsay Wright.

Ronald Wright was born on 2 June 1900 at Peterhead, a district of Port Adelaide, South Australia, the youngest son of nine children of Joseph and Charlotte Wright.

He grew up in the Port district until 1913, when his parents moved to Millicent where they ran a painting and decorating business.

In August 1914 the First World War began. Perhaps in response to HMAS Sydney’s stirring victory over the German light cruiser Emden in November 1914, Wright, aged 14, joined the Royal Australian Navy on 25 January 1915.

He was sent to HMAS Tingira, the RAN’s training ship moored in Rose Bay, Sydney Harbour, for his initial training. At this time, his rank was Boy Second Class. As he progressed through his training, his character was assessed as good and he was promoted to Boy First Class in late October.

On 6 November, with his initial training complete, Wright was posted to HMAS Cerberus, the shore-based training establishment in Victoria, in preparation for his departure to the United Kingdom.

Before leaving Australia, Wright returned home for his embarkation leave. The local newspaper, the South Eastern Times, reported that “his brief visit was a fine advertisement of the discipline and influence of a naval career, which had in a few months developed Master Wright from a somewhat harum-scarum lad into a fine, sturdy, manly young man.”

After arriving in England, Wright was sent out to Bermuda where he joined the light cruiser HMAS Sydney. In the following months, Sydney was involved in surveillance operations of neutral ports and patrolling shipping lanes off the east coast of the Americas.

In September Sydney left Bermuda for England. After arriving in mid-September, Sydney was sent to Greenock, the port where the ship had been originally built, for a refit.

HMAS Sydney was back at sea at the end of October and after a brief attachment to the 5th Battle Squadron at Scapa Flow, joined the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron at Rosyth in Scotland.

On 19 December, the Grand Fleet put to sea. A superstition of the light cruiser squadron crews was that if a ship passed seaward under the Forth Bridge without a train passing overhead, then the ship and her company would not return as they had left. As it happened, there was no train crossing the bridge as Sydney passed beneath it – and the ship’s company wondered how the bad luck would present itself.

After participating in exercises at sea, Sydney along with its sister ships in the squadron – HMAS Melbourne, HMS Southampton, HMS Dublin and four destroyers – were ordered to patrol off the Norwegian coast to intercept enemy vessels that were reportedly heading for Germany.

On 21 December, off Norway the group encountered extremely bad weather; the seas were so rough that the destroyers had difficulty in keeping station. Damage to the rudder of HMS Hoste resulted in a collision with HMS Negro. The stern of Hoste sank, and a depth charge that was washed overboard detonated under Negro which stove in a section of the hull, fatally damaging the ship. 51 officers and ratings were lost.

Hoste was taken under tow, but the heavy seas were too much for the stricken vessel and the crew were ordered to abandon ship. Rough seas hampered rescue efforts though by the time Hoste sank, all but four men had been rescued.

Aboard Sydney, the heavy seas had washed both whaler boats away. The steam pinnace was badly damaged, as were the remaining boats, which left the light cruiser with no boats. One sailor had a lucky escape when he was washed overboard by a wave, only to be washed back aboard by another as he went over the side.

Sydney took further damage when her waist awning was torn away. Wright was a member of the party sent to lash down the loose awning and as the men struggled against the elements, a huge wave hit the ship sweeping all from their feet.

Wright was carried across the deck, his head crashing into a projectile rack, fracturing his skull. The report in the official history stated that death was instantaneous – but a letter from Sydney’s chaplain, Father Vivian Little to Wright’s parents, outlined the story of their son’s passing:
“The injured men were removed to the hospital, where two surgeons rendered every aid possible. The injuries your son received were in his head and one leg, his skull being fractured. He never regained consciousness and at about 10 o’clock that night he succumbed to his injuries.” Ronald Wright was 16 years old.

The seas had still not finished with the Australian light cruisers. Aboard HMAS Melbourne, two sailors, Signalman Ernesto Campagnolo and Able Seaman William Watson, were swept overboard and lost.

Sydney returned to Rosyth on the night of 21December. Wright’s remains were taken ashore and he was laid to rest in the South Queensferry Cemetery, near Edinburgh. A private headstone was erected by his shipmates over the grave.

His name is listed on the Roll of Honour on my right, among almost 62,000 Australians who died while serving in the First World War.

This is but one of the many stories of service and sacrifice told here at the Australian War Memorial. We now remember Boy First Class Ronald Rothsay Wright, who gave his life for us, for our freedoms, and in the hope of a better world.

Michael Kelly
Historian, Military History Section

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